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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February 2005, 14:40 GMT
Challenge Cup makes capital gain
by Julian Shea

A few years ago, a London derby in the Challenge Cup would have seemed about as likely as an ex-Wigan player captaining England in the Six Nations.

Well, get used to it, because this Saturday both will happen.

Whilst Jason Robinson leads out England at Cardiff, another West London-based team will be aiming to get a step closer to Cardiff in the Challenge Cup.

The BBC Sport website's Road to Cardiff 2005 began with West London beating Fife 42-10 in the preliminary round.

On Saturday, the Sharks face South London Storm in the first round proper, and whatever the outcome, history will be made.

This is the Sharks' first Challenge Cup campaign, whilst the Storm lost their one previous Cup game last year, so Saturday's winners will move into uncharted waters.

There are plenty of people who don't realise there are rugby league teams in London.
West London's Mick Whitehead

For added geographical confusion, South London and West London meet in North London, at the home of London Skolars.

The cup tie takes place before the Skolars' friendly against the London Broncos, a prospect which thrills the Sharks and Storm players.

"It'll be fantastic to play in front of a decent crowd and raise the profile of the game in London," Sharks forward Mick Whitehead told BBC Sport.

"There are plenty of people who don't realise there are rugby league teams in London. It'll be great exposure.

"Even some people who watch the Broncos don't appreciate that we're playing literally round the corner from their ground."

In just three years, the Streatham-based Storm have taken major steps towards consolidating the future of the game in the South East.

They have build a formidable youth structure and are even sacrificing their place in the National League.

"For the last two years, we've come 10th out of 14 teams in National League Three," says chairman Paul Brown.

"But next season we're stepping down to the Rugby League Conference Premier Division.

"This is to help build the club over the next two or three years, cut down on expenses and consolidate until our juniors are ready to feed through to the senior side."

Sharks skipper Matt Clark and Storm captain Richard Giles pose with the Challenge Cup in front of Big Ben
Sharks skipper Clark and Storm captain Giles pose with the Challenge Cup in front of Big Ben
That's what you call forward planning.

With the Skolars entering the Challenge Cup in the next round, Saturday's derby ensures there will be two London teams in round two.

And Oldham-born Whitehead says it would be nice to have the chance to prove some Northern doubters wrong.

"A lot of people up north are surprised that we play down here and always assume that it won't be up to the same standard as in the North West," he says.

"Whoever the winners go on to play in the next round, it should be interesting."

Whilst Saturday's game expenses will only be the cost of a one-day Travelcard, the victors will progress to round two, where they are only 80 minutes away from a possible third-round trip to France or even Russia.

Not that a trip abroad would be anything new for the forward-looking Storm, mind you.

"Last year we became the first British team at any level to tour Australia since the 1997 Super League team, when we sent over a party of 17 players," says Brown.

"We have an annual trip to France and hope to arrange a trip to the USA or Jamaica in the next few years."

The teams' head-to-head record over the years is fairly even, and both sides have potential match-winners in their ranks.

The Sharks should stick with the same side that beat Fife, including former Parramatta Eel Mark Barnes, but the Storm have danger men of their own.

Their main threat is union convert Louis Neethling, last season's top try scorer with 19 touchdowns.

Not bad for someone who came to the game less than a year ago - oh yes, and he's a prop, too.

Last time it was a step into the unknown, but this time there's more expectation, especially as it's a derby
Mick Whitehead

Whilst the preliminary round was a bit of an adventure, Whitehead admits being in the first round makes things a bit different.

"Last time it was a step into the unknown, but this time there's more expectation, especially as it's a derby. There's been more focus in training," he says.

"The fact it's the Challenge Cup is a bonus. As for the next round, who knows - we might end up playing against people we're used to watching."

And who's to say that won't happen for whichever team reaches round two.

No-one could have predicted Don Fox would miss THAT kick.

No-one could have predicted Sheffield would beat Wigan. But he did, and they did.

No-one could have predicted a London derby in the Challenge Cup, but on Saturday there will be one.

But whatever route the Road to Cardiff takes, BBC Sport will be there every step of the way.

South London Storm play West London Sharks on Saturday (12.45 GMT) at New River Stadium, Wood Green, Tottenham

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